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Posts about scientific research and development as well as science and engineering breakthroughs.
Recommended posts: R&D Spending in USA Universities - Diplomacy and Science Research - Research Career in Industry or Academia - New Understanding of Human DNA - Basic Science Research Funding - The World’s Best Research Universities - Mystery of High-Temperature Superconductivity - Why Most Published Research Findings Are False

2014 Ranking of the World’s Best Research Universities

Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University produces an annual ranking of research universities. The methodology values publications and faculty awards (Nobel and Fields) which belies the focus on ranking research not for example the quality of education provided.

You could argue one measure does partially address teaching as the Nobel and Fields prizes to alumni are created to the institution (that is separate from a measure of faculty that receive those honors). I would agree it partially measure the education though it also measures the ability of that school to attract the absolute best candidates (whether they would have been just as successful going elsewhere is a fair question).

Results from the 2014 rankings of top 500 universities with the number of schools by country:

location Top 100 % of World
Population
% of World GDP % of top 500
USA 52     4.5%   22.2%  29.2%
United Kingdom   8  0.9  3.5 7.6
Germany   4  1.1  5.0 7.8
Canada   4  0.5  2.4 4.2
France   4  0.9  3.8 4.2
Japan   3  1.8  7.8 3.8
Australia   4  0.3  1.5 3.8
China   0  19.2  11.7 8.8
Netherlands   4  0.2  1.3 2.6
Sweden   4  0.1  0.8 2.2
Switzerland   5  0.1  0.8 1.4
South Korea   0  .7  1.7 2.0
India   0  17.0  1.9 0.2

The top countries for top 100 and top 500 schools are listed above, but I skip over many after the top 7 or 8 to include a few countries I like to watch, see the ranking site for the full list. Country population and GDP data were taken from the World Development Indicators 2013, by the World Bank.

There is little change in top 100 since 2008, which I think is a good sign, it wouldn’t make much sense to have radical shifts quickly in this type of ranking. The USA lost 2 schools in the top 100, UK lost 3, Germany lost 2, Switzerland gained 2, Netherlands gain 2…

There is more change in the top 500 where changes are more sensible (there is probably not much separating schools ranked in the 300’s from those in the 500’s so variation and strong pushes (from countries like China) can have an impact. China gained 14 more schools in the top 500. China’s GDP also increased from 6.6% of global GDP to 11.7%.

University of Wisconsin – Madison is 24th, it was 17th in 2008 My father taught there while I grew up.
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Teixobactin – New Antibiotic Attacks Ability of Bacteria to Build Cell Walls

New class of antibiotic could turn the tables in battle against superbugs

The antibiotic, called teixobactin, kills a wide range of drug-resistant bacteria, including MRSA and bugs that cause TB and a host of other life-threatening infections.

It could become a powerful weapon in the battle against antimicrobial resistance, because it kills microbes by blocking their capacity to build their cell walls, making it extremely difficult for bacteria to evolve resistance.

It would be great if the exciting results carried through to real world results similar to the hope. Medical research is full of promising initial results that fail to deliver, however. We are at great risk if some new miracle anti-biotic isn’t found. Many people are investigating potential solutions.

Most antibiotics are isolated from bacteria or fungi that churn out lethal compounds to keep other microbes at bay. But scientists have checked only a tiny fraction of bugs for their ability to produce potential antibiotics because 99% cannot be grown in laboratories.

Lewis’s group found a way around the problem by developing a device called an iChip that cultures bacteria in their natural habitat. The device sandwiches the bugs between two permeable sheets. It is then pushed back into the ground where the microbes grow into colonies.

Working with a Massachusetts-based company, NovoBiotic, and researchers at the University of Bonn, [Kim] Lewis’s group screened 10,000 soil bacteria for antibiotics and discovered 25 new compounds. Of these, teixobactin was the most promising.

Though promising, Lewis said that years more work lie ahead before the drug could be available. Human clinical trials could begin within two years to check its safety and efficacy, but more development would follow that.

It is wonderful to read about the great work so many scientists are making in researching potential life saving drugs. Hopefully this antibiotic will save us from what will be catastrophic harm if some new antibiotic is not available soon.

Related: Search for Antibiotic Solutions Continues: Killing Sleeper Bacteria Cells (2013)New Family of Antibacterial Agents Discovered (2009)Potential Antibiotic Alternative to Treat Infection Without Resistance (2012)

Ranking Countries by Scientific Publication Citations: USA, UK, Germany…

The SCImago Journal and Country Rank provides journal and country scientific indicators developed from the information contained in the Scopus database. I posted about this previously (in 2014, 2011 and 2008).

The data in the post is based on their data from 1996 through 2013. The web site also lets you look at these ranking by very specific categories. For example biotechnology #1 USA, #2 Germany, #3 UK, #4 Japan, #12 China or human computer interaction #1 USA, #2 Germany, #3 UK #4 Japan, #13 China).

I like looking at data and country comparisons but in doing so it is wise to remember this is the results of a calculation that is interesting but hardly definative. We don’t have the ability to measure the true scientific research output by country.

The table shows the top 6 countries by h-index and then some others I chose to list.

Country h-index 2010
h-index
2007
h-index
% of World
Population
% of World GDP total cites
USA 1,518 1,139 793     4.5%   22.2% 152,984,430
United Kingdom 918 689 465  0.9  3.5 37,450,384
Germany 815 607 408  1.1  5.0  30,644,118
France 742 554 376  0.9  3.8  21,193,343
Canada 725 536 370  0.5  2.4 18,826,873
Japan 635 527 372  1.8  7.8 23,633,462
Additional countries of interest (with 2013 country rank)
16) China 436 279 161  19.2  11.7  14,752,062
19) South Korea 375 258 161    .7  1.7  5,770,844
22) Brazil 342 239 148  2.8  3.0 4,164,813
23) India 341 227 146  17.5  2.6 5,666,045

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Manufacture Biological Sensors Using Silk and Looms

The fabric chip platform from Achira Labs in India uses looms to manufacture biological sensors.

Image of process for creating silk test strips

image by Achira Labs

Yarn coated with appropriate biological reagents like antibodies or enzymes is woven into a piece of fabric at the desired location. Strips of fabric are then cut out, packaged and can form the substrate for di erent biological assays. Even a simple handloom could produce thousands of these sensors at very low cost.

The resulting fabrics can be used to test for pregnancy, diabetes, chronic diseases, etc.. Achira Labs, an Indian start-up, received $100,000 in Canadian funding in 2013 to develop a silk strip that can diagnose rotavirus, a common cause of diarrhea and can be used in diapers.

The company is planing to start selling silk diabetes test strips using there process this year and expects costs to be about 1/3 of the existing test strips using conventional manufacturing processes.

Related: Appropriate Technology Health Care Solution Could Save 72,000 Lives a YearWater WheelUsing Drones to Deliver Medical Supplies in Roadless AreasAppropriate Technology: Self Adjusting Glasses

Defying Textbook Science, Study Finds Proteins Built Without DNA Instructions

Open any introductory biology textbook and one of the first things you’ll learn is that our DNA spells out the instructions for making proteins, tiny machines that do much of the work in our body’s cells. Results from a recent study show for the first time that the building blocks of a protein, called amino acids, can be assembled without blueprints – DNA and an intermediate template called messenger RNA (mRNA). A team of researchers has observed a case in which another protein specifies which amino acids are added.

“This surprising discovery reflects how incomplete our understanding of biology is,” says first author Peter Shen, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in biochemistry at the University of Utah. “Nature is capable of more than we realize.”

To put the new finding into perspective, it might help to think of the cell as a well-run factory. Ribosomes are machines on a protein assembly line, linking together amino acids in an order specified by the genetic code. When something goes wrong, the ribosome can stall, and a quality control crew is summoned to the site. To clean up the mess, the ribosome is disassembled, the blueprint is discarded, and the partly made protein is recycled.

Yet this study reveals a surprising role for one member of the quality control team, a protein conserved from yeast to man named Rqc2. Before the incomplete protein is recycled, Rqc2 prompts the ribosomes to add just two amino acids (of a total of 20) – alanine and threonine – over and over, and in any order. Think of an auto assembly line that keeps going despite having lost its instructions. It picks up what it can and slaps it on.

“In this case, we have a protein playing a role similar to that filled by mRNA,” says Adam Frost, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and adjunct professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah. He shares senior authorship with Jonathan Weissman, Ph.D., a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at UCSF, and Onn Brandman, Ph.D., at Stanford University. “I love this story because it blurs the lines of what we thought proteins could do.”

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Virgin Births in the Animal Kingdom

Spectacular and Real Virgin Births

Scientists are discovering that virgin births occur in many different species; amphibians, reptiles, cartilaginous and bony fish and birds and it happens for reasons we don’t quite understand.

Initially, a virgin birth, also known as parthenogenesis, was thought to be triggered by extreme situations; it was only documented among captive animals, for example, perhaps by the stress, or isolation. A way to continue the bloodline when all other options had gone, when there was no other choice.

Not necessarily. It now appears that some virgin females produce offspring even in the presence of males.

Another interesting area of research for scientists. The value of sex to aid a species’ success is well understood. The value of being able to produce offspring when no males are around seems obvious also. But how this all works is quite interesting and again shows how much we have to learn.

Related: Fungus-gardening Ant Species Has Given Up Sex Completely (2010)Some Female Sharks Can Reproduce All by Themselves (2007)Amazon Molly Fish are All Female (2008)Bdelloid Rotifers Abandoned Sex 100 Million Years Ago (2007)

Leslie Lamport Receives 2013 ACM Turing Award

Leslie Lamport, a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, has been named as the recipient of the 2013 ACM A.M. Turing Award for imposing clear, well-defined coherence on the seemingly chaotic behavior of distributed computing systems, in which several autonomous computers communicate with each other by passing messages. He devised important algorithms and developed formal modeling and verification protocols that improve the quality of real distributed systems. These contributions have resulted in improved correctness, performance, and reliability of computer systems.

ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) announced that the funding level for the ACM Turing Award is now $1,000,000 (to be provided by Google). The new amount is four times its previous level. It seems to me the 14th of November 2014 is a bit late to announce the 2013 award winner, but for an extra $750,000 I would gladly wait a year (or a decade for that matter).

The new award level brings the computer science award to the level of Nobel Prizes and the Fields medal.

Leslie Lamport’s 1978 paper, “Time, Clocks, and the Ordering of Events in a Distributed System,” one of the most cited in the history of computer science.

Read more about the work of Leslie Lamport.

Related: Barbara Liskov wins Turing Award (2009)Donald Knuth, Computer Scientist (2006)Google 2006 Anita Borg Scholarship2008 Draper Prize for Engineering

Apples Increase the Growth of Beneficial Bacteria in Our Guts, Which Improves Our Health

Science provides some very clear knowledge that is easy for us to apply (the value of vaccines, materials to use in solar panels, support needed to build a bridge, dangers of consuming small amounts of lead…). But much of our knowledge about nutrition and human health is a bit unclear. This is one of the struggles we face is using our judgement to decide how to eat and live based on what we know and what seems to be so.

Eating more fruit and vegetables than most in the USA eat is pretty clearly beneficial to our health. but exactly how much, how beneficial, how it is beneficial are questions with only varying degrees of good answers so far. Apple’s Scientists at Washington State University have concluded that nondigestible compounds in apples – specifically, Granny Smith apples – may help prevent disorders associated with obesity.

“We know that, in general, apples are a good source of these nondigestible compounds but there are differences in varieties,” said food scientist Giuliana Noratto, the study’s lead researcher. “Results from this study will help consumers to discriminate between apple varieties that can aid in the fight against obesity.”

The tart green Granny Smith apples benefit the growth of friendly bacteria in the colon due to their high content of non-digestible compounds, including dietary fiber and polyphenols, and low content of available carbohydrates. The non-digestible compounds are fermented by bacteria in the colon, which benefits the growth of friendly bacteria in the gut.

The study showed that Granny Smith apples surpass Braeburn, Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, McIntosh and Red Delicious in the amount of nondigestible compounds they contain.

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Epigenetics, Scientific Inquiry and Uncertainty

Science is full of fascinating ideas. Epigenetics is one area I find particularly interesting. This previous post has a few links to learning more: DNA Passed to Descendants Changed by Your Life.

Angela Saini is one 109 people I follow on Twitter. I don’t see the point in “following” people on Twitter that you have no interest in, I only follow the small number of people that post Tweets I want to read.

In, Epigenetics: genes, environment and the generation game, Angela Saini looks at the confused state of current scientific understand now. It is very difficult to tell if, and if so, to what extent, epigenetic inheritance happens in people.

Professor Azim Surani, a leading developmental biologist and geneticist at the University of Cambridge, adds that while there is good evidence that epigenetic inheritance happens in plants and worms, mammals have very different biology. Surani’s lab carried out thorough studies on how epigenetic information was erased in developing mouse embryos and found that “surprisingly little gets through” the reprogramming process.

Professor Timothy Bestor, a geneticist at Columbia University in New York, is far more damning, claiming that the entire field has been grossly overhyped. “It’s an extremely fashionable topic right now. It’s very easy to get studies on transgenerational epigenetic inheritance published,” he says, adding that all this excitement has lowered critical standards.

Related: Epigenetic Effects on DNA from Living Conditions in Childhood Persist Well Into Middle AgeMedical Study Findings too Often Fail to Provide Us Useful KnowledgeScientific Inquiry Process Finds That Komodo Dragons Don’t have a Toxic Bite After All

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Lactic Acid Bacteria in Bees Counteracted Antibiotic-Resistant MRSA in Lab Experiments

13 lactic acid bacteria found in the honey stomach of bees have shown promising results as an antibiotic treatment in a series of studies at Lund University in Sweden (Open access paper: Lactic acid bacterial symbionts in honeybees – an unknown key to honey’s antimicrobial and therapeutic activities). The group of bacteria counteracted antibiotic-resistant MRSA in lab experiments. The bacteria, mixed into honey, has healed horses with persistent wounds. The formula has also previously been shown to protect against bee colony collapse.

photo of a bee on a flower

Photo by Justin Hunter

Raw honey has been used against infections for millennia, before honey – as we now know it – was manufactured and sold in stores. So what is the key to its’ antimicrobial properties? Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have identified a unique group of 13 lactic acid bacteria found in fresh honey, from the honey stomach of bees. The bacteria produce a myriad of active antimicrobial compounds.

These lactic acid bacteria have now been tested on severe human wound pathogens such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Pseudomonas aeruginosa and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE), among others. When the lactic acid bacteria were applied to the pathogens in the laboratory, it counteracted all of them.

While the effect on human bacteria has only been tested in a lab environment thus far, the lactic acid bacteria has been applied directly to horses with persistent wounds. The LAB was mixed with honey and applied to ten horses; where the owners had tried several other methods to no avail. All of the horses’ wounds were healed by the mixture.

The researchers believe the secret to the strong results lie in the broad spectrum of active substances involved.

“Antibiotics are mostly one active substance, effective against only a narrow spectrum of bacteria. When used alive, these 13 lactic acid bacteria produce the right kind of antimicrobial compounds as needed, depending on the threat. It seems to have worked well for millions of years of protecting bees’ health and honey against other harmful microorganisms. However, since store-bought honey doesn’t contain the living lactic acid bacteria, many of its unique properties have been lost in recent times”, explains Tobias Olofsson.

This is a very cool: “When used alive, these 13 lactic acid bacteria produce the right kind of antimicrobial compounds as needed, depending on the threat.” As is the note that store bought honey doesn’t contain the living bacteria. My guess is some honey bought directly from farmers or bee-keepers, at farmer’s markets may well still have those live bacteria – but I am just guessing I may be wrong.

The next step is further studies to investigate wider clinical use against topical human infections as well as on animals.

The findings have implications for developing countries, where fresh honey is easily available, but also for Western countries where antibiotic resistance is seriously increasing.

Related: People are Superorganisms With Microbiomes of Thousands of SpeciesThe Search for Antibiotic Solutions Continues: Killing Sleeper Bacteria CellsOur Dangerous Antibiotic Practices Carry Great RisksPotential Antibiotic Alternative to Treat Infection Without Resistance
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Self Driving Cars Have Huge Potential for Benefit to Society

Self-driving cars was something that seemed very far-fetched when I first read Google was seriously investing in pursuing that idea as a commercially viable product (Google’s Self Driving Car – 2010 post). I quickly became convinced they were right. I still think it is questionable if they will succeed (the political issues may well be even more difficult than technical ones). But the chances of success seem reasonable and the investment in research could provide a huge payoff.

Google’s self driving cars have driven 700,000 miles without an accident already; which is amazing. Warren Buffett stated that “self-driving cars are a real threat to the car insurance business” (His company owns the GIECO car insurance company) at the 2014 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting in Omaha.

There are some people, stressing that this is not ready for mass market use. They are right. But, I think it is funny to see people thinking that a very early stage huge innovation in transportation not being ready today is a reasonable criticism. I am amazed that this huge innovation may actually be available before 2020. That would be incredible.

Certainly even then it will have limitations. And certainly there will be accidents. The current transportation system with humans driving cars has thosands of accidents a day and tens of thousands of deaths a year in the USA alone every year. Every year 1.2 million people die worldwide in traffic-related incidents, and over 90% of those accidents are due to human error.

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